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Cockroaches by Jo Nesbø

April 21, 2014 4 comments

Cockroaches-The-Second-Inspector-Harry-Hole-Novel-V-376003-5d4eb82dbd9467d7f1b0

Cockroaches by Jo Nesbø (Vintage Crime/Black Lizard, 2014) sees a publisher finally translating and releasing one of the early Harry Hole novels. For the record, this is the second in the series but the last to be translated into English. It follows on from his exploits in Australia. For those of you new to the series, he’s the detective with a brain who has looked into the abyss. Needless to say, neither side of this exchange of view was enamored, so Harry has decided to seek oblivion through alcohol. This does not, of course, lead to his dismissal from the police force. Those that matter in the hierarchy understand the circumstances and, from time to time, there’s a need for a man like this. In this instance, the need arises in Bangkok (a city providing all the temptations likely to attract the addicted and the dangerous). The Norwegian ambassador to Thailand has been found with a knife in his back in a brothel. This could be deeply embarrassing to the ruling party in Norway so a cover-up is in order. A little research suggests Harry may not emerge from the bottle long enough to do any lasting damage. The local Thai authorities are also keen to minimise the media interest. It might damage their tourism trade if it were to be suggested a knife-wielding killer was lurking in a brothel, massage parlour or one of the many other venues where sexual gratification for money may be obtained.

To help ensure the investigation is less than successful, the Thai authorities designate a woman and a farang to liaise. She’s the daughter of an American officer and a local woman who has returned to Thailand. It’s not the gender itself that’s likely to be a problem. Local Thais tend not to be impressed by foreigners. So even though she speaks the language like a native, the lines of communication are not going to work so well. The only thing going in her favour from Harry’s point of view is that she’s not as corrupt as the majority of the local police force — it’s an economic problem with the government not paying those employed to enforce the law enough to live on. So most take money not to enforce the law.

Jo Nesbo

Jo Nesbo

As murders go, this looks reasonably straightforward: man found dead in brothel by the prostitute sent to service him. While not an everyday crime, there’s always a dangerous edge to using the services of the sex industry. Prostitutes or their pimps roll clients for their passports, credit cards and cash. Muggers and robbers steal whatever’s left. Mostly the clients live to tell the tale. Sometimes they fight back when they should know better and pay the price. Yet this is an ambassador. More to the point, he’s independently wealthy so need never go this low down in the market. Although perhaps that’s the point. Maybe a part of the excitement comes from entering the demimonde. Except there are some photographs in his briefcase (what man takes his briefcase with him when he goes to a brothel?). They show a paedophile with a boy. The photographer was using a long lens and did not capture the man’s face. So perhaps the ambassador was meeting someone to blackmail. But if the motive was blackmail, why didn’t the killer take the photographs? Even on the initial survey, there are some unusual factors. Once the investigation goes through the standard moves, the unanswered questions multiply. This should lead to the whitewash both government want. With no obvious way to answer all these questions, the case should be closed and Harry should go home.

But Harry never has been one for following orders and, as he dries out in the heat of Bangkok, he begins to understand the force of the old joke, “When a cockroach dies, one-hundred turn up at the funeral.” In this case, Harry’s crude hacking at the walls of silence around him, encourages a number of creatures to crawl out into the daylight. The only two problems are which might be the killer(s) he’s looking for and can he avoid being killed by those that resent being disturbed? It proves to be a highly detailed plot with a very nicely arranged diversionary tactic in play. Unfortunately, we also get the traditionally seamy view of Thailand as a tourist destination. Although most of the information is necessarily subordinated to the need to keep the plot going, it’s a clichéd overview with few pleasing touches of local colour to bring the setting to life. That the corruption also extends back to Norway should not surprise us. The politics swirling around this murder endangers reputations in both countries. Naturally, once he’s sobered up, Harry is just the man you need to get to the truth of the matter. What then happens is predictable as the news is massaged. Ironically, for all Harry produces a clear-cut ending, the cover-up more or less stays in place. Life goes on and Harry can resume his search for oblivion.

Since I enjoy reading clever books with a darker edge, Cockroaches appeals to me. There’s a rather satisfying coldblooded quality to the planning and execution of the crimes on display. It doesn’t matter how realistic the events may be. The intellectual rigour of the plot makes the book worth reading. From the little I’ve said, you’ll understand the themes explored are not for the faint-hearted. But, for the most part, the book is not explicit. It should not offend while asking pertinent questions about the weaknesses some humans have.

For reviews of other books by Jo Nesbø, see:
The Bat
Police
The Son.
There’s also a film version of Headhunters or Hodejegerne (2011).

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

A Good Death by Christopher R Cox

A Good Death by Christopher R Cox

It’s customary for thrillers to globe trot. For the high-end market, James Bond transports us to hyperreal destinations. When first written, these were the playgrounds of the rich and powerful, the places we ordinary people could never access. Now that travel has democratised the world to some extent, the film versions must present these more accessible locations in a way that heightens their difference. The sun must rise from just this angle to reflect off the buildings, the neon of the advertising hoardings must make surreal flickerings on marbled floors, the waters of the sea must be crystal clear and free from the sewage more usually found floating around urbanised coastlines. At the other end of the market, thrillers insist on more real locations where we vicariously experience more brutal violence and feel the lack of human kindness.

A Good Death by Christopher R Cox (Minotaur Books, 2013) falls into the latter camp where we get a slightly sanitised version of life in the demimonde of Bangkok and then a positively romanticised trip across the border into Laos. The best way to capture the spirit of this book is to see it as a slowly evolving adventure story. As is usually required, we start off in America with a young man coming into his father’s business as a PI. Early on in this career move, he’s offered a chance on an insurance case. The company is deeply suspicious about a claim on a life policy. A young woman has apparently overdosed in Bangkok. This would trigger a double indemnity claim. Even though there’s a body verified by the local staff of the US Embassy, the company believes this is a fraudulent claim. Our hero is therefore sent off with specific instructions to prove the fraud.

Christopher R Cox saved from the creek

Christopher R Cox saved from the creek

This is the ultimate fish-out-of-water set-up. He’s never been to this part of the world before and is profoundly inexperienced when it comes to dealing with people in radically different cultures. Yet with little difficulty, he’s able to talk with the coroner, officers at the local police station, people at the hotel where the body was found, and so on. In other words, despite the lack of language skills, he’s moving with the same ease he might back home in the US. At first sight, everything about the death looks legitimate except. . .

The problem with the first part of the book is we have to go through it all to get to the second part. Yes, I know. I’m sorry. But the first third is rather slow-moving and not terribly convincing but, unless and until our hero resolves the question of the death, we can’t get on with the next phase. Think of the story as growing organically, one part naturally developing into the next. So during the course of his investigation, he runs foul of one of the more senior police officers who seems to be into some level of corruption involving prostitution if not more serious offences. It therefore becomes expedient to leave Bangkok. There’s a travel third and then a final third of straight thrillerish adventure.

I would like to be able to tell you this is a good story. In fact, the author is genuinely trying his best to tell a story that spans the generations and makes recent history relevant to today. In other hands, may be this could all have worked but, as it is, the whole thing starts off ponderously and then slowly collapses under its own weight. It’s like watching a slow-motion car wreck as our hero slowly moves off the map and ends up in a different country. This just does not feel credible. He hasn’t got the personality to undertake a journey involving this level of risk. Even though he acquires one of his father’s ex-army buddies as a guide, I don’t believe it would play out this way. And even if he did end up in this place, I seriously doubt he would survive. The natives in this part of the world are notorious for their ability as hunters and, if they should want to ensure those they captured hung around to see how it would all end, they would still be there. The result is more an adventure than a thriller with our hero blundering back into civilisation so there can be a next book in the series. Why I am classifying this as adventure? Because in true thriller mode our hero is the prime mover who pulls everyone through to the triumph at the end. At best this guy is reactive and little better than a spectator during much of the action. It’s a shame. I have the sense it could have been a lot better but, as a first novel, I suppose there’s just enough to encourage us. Perhaps the next one will all come together in a coherent and well-paced package. Until then, A Good Death is something you should only read if you have an interest in studying the problems in first novels.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

SuckSeed or Huay Khan Thep (2011)

The conversation with my wife began inauspiciously. I suggested we go see a Thai film. She was immediately up in arms. “I don’t like horror films,” was the first of several minutes of complaint, switching from horror to the Muay Thai films with Ong-Bak beating everyone up in his search for a white elephant. I did my best to remind her of The Iron Ladies or Satree lek and its sequel but, for a while, everything hung in the balance. “A comedy? A coming-of-age film? Out of Thailand?” Incredulity was temporarily her middle name. Eventually, curiosity got the better of her and I duly handed over money. We huddled in the back row, trying to blend in while surrounded by a crowd of youngsters. Fortunately, none of them were interested in adolescent canoodling and, as the lights went down with modesty preserved on all sides, we were into SuckSeed or Huay Khan Thep (the three Thai words translate as “Brilliantly Bad”).

Pachara Chirathivat and Jirayu La-ongmanee consider their options

 

I vividly remember the first two singles released by the Sex Pistols. “Anarchy in the UK” was raw energy. Their version of “God Save the Queen” was hilariously irreverent. Within weeks of their arrival, they had outraged everyone that should have been outraged and amused the rest of us. Naming a band SuckSeed should give you a clue about what this trio of young Thais is all about. Their first single as an entry into a competition for bands is appropriately anthemic. It runs along the lines, “We suck. We’re complete failures. We’re all going down in flames, but we’re going to do it together. Yes, we all suck together. . .” and so on. So what you have to imagine is three youngsters who cannot play properly, thrashing away on guitar, bass and drums while the “singer” shouts himself hoarse. For the live performance in competition, they even arrange for a young boy to run on stage to be sick while a fat boy does potentially obscene things just out of camera shot. By Thai standards, it’s all a bit radical, but it beautifully captures what the film is all about.

 

Here we have two boys. Ped (Jirayu La-ongmanee) is terminally shy, while his best friend Koong (Pachara Chirathivat) has an older and very talented brother. Consequently, Koong never tries seriously to do anything, having already decided he cannot compete with his brother. Nevertheless, in his relationship with Ped, he finds some degree of liberation and is dominant, always organising Ped into yet another activity. In junior school, they are in the same class as Ern (Nattasha Nauljam). Inevitably, Ped loves her from the start but is incapable of doing anything about it. When he discovers she is moving to Bankok, he does his best by recording an attempted song to declare his love but, when he telephones to arrange delivery of the tape, he’s so intimidated by Ern’s father, he claims to be Koong and then puts down the phone. This leads to the predictable confusion at school when the gossip links Ern and Koong.

Nattasha Nauljam demonstrating real flair on the guitar

 

We now leap forward to secondary school. Ern has returned and, from Koong’s point of view, there’s the worst possible development. His brother has proved himself a wonderful rock musician and is fronting a band called Arena. So great is his charisma, he can pull any girl in the school. This finally provokes Koong into direct competition. When he discovers Ern is also a great guitarist, he decides to form a band. Ped is deputed to hold the bass and a boy, enigmatically named Ex (Thawat Pornrattanaprasert) whose flair at basketball is demonstrated when he falls and breaks his arm, is roped in as the drummer. Needless to say, he’s not a great success with one stick lodged in the plaster cast on his arm. But for a moment, with Ern playing lead, they have purpose and don’t sound too awful. Unfortunately, Koong tries to form a relationship with Ern and drives her away — inevitably, she joins Arena — and Ex has the same unhappy experience with his hoped-for girlfriend. Hence, all three boys are total failures when it comes to girls and reflect this in their song which, not surprisingly, propels them into the final of the competition.

Thawat Pornrattanaprasert thinking about becoming a drummer

 

So, first of all, the good things. Without exception, the acting is naturalistic and affecting. All four leads come out of this well. Although it’s a long time ago, I can remember what it was like as a teen trying to summon up the courage to talk with girls. This script focuses on the inevitable conflict as our two heroes fall for the same girl with first-time director, Chayanop Boonprakob using the music well to capture their moods. The convention of having the lead singers from the original recordings turn up on screen to sing to the cast just about avoids overstaying its welcome. One more time and it would have become annoying albeit one or two sequences are actually amusing. Which brings us to the second good thing. Thai humour is laugh-out-loud when it’s allowed to surface. There were times when the cinema erupted — always a good sign. But this hides a problem. There’s great energy in the direction with there even being some quite witty animation to capture one moment. But the whole is too long by about twenty minutes. It actually lasts 136 minutes with the director showing his inexperience by allowing some of the scenes to overrun. It gives the whole a slightly laboured feel. Yes, the jokes and the central triangular relationship between Jirayu La-ongmanee, Pachara Chirathivat and Nattasha Nauljam keep up the interest, but the slow pacing prevents the film from being a complete “success”.

 

SuckSeed or Huay Khan Thep is fun as a coming-of-age film set to a mixture of punk and contemporary Thai rock music. When they set out to try playing and singing, the boys are gloriously bad and celebrate that fact. Even though shy, they make a sustained attempt to break through their inhibitions. Arena, by contrast, are very professional. On a personal note, I was always slightly more quiet which means I’m probably the wrong generation to judge this. It’s a universal truth that, by our own high standards, we all suck as human beings when we’re young. Perhaps I should just go with the flow of the the young audience around me who found it immensely enjoyable. Continuing the positive side, my wife is now recommending it to her friends as the best Thai horror film of all times.

 

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